What would it be like to live as a computer? Can computers preserve the consciousness of the human mind after death? Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking recently suggested it will someday be possible to download human minds on to computers as a form of life after death. It is a tantalizing idea which has inspired robotic scientists and propelled forward new pursuits in technological innovation, but does it unfairly discount the possibility of a non-physical afterlife?
A.I. and the Immortality of the Soul
Technological innovations will one day make the immortality of the soul a reality, Hawking explained during an appearance at the Cambridge Film Festival. “I think the brain is like a program in the mind, which is like a computer”, he said, and it is therefore “theoretically possible to copy the brain on to a computer and so provide a form of life after death”. He maintained that while such a feat is theoretically possible, it is “beyond our present capabilities”, and we will have to wait for scientists to develop a mechanism to preserve the mind. The physicist made his words during a presentation on a new documentary about his life.
Scientists and amateurs alike are already experimenting with ways to make such an artificial brain a reality. As part of his 2045 Initiative, Russian multi-millionaire Dmitry Istkov plans to transfer the mental experience of a human brain into the body of a humanoid robot, while the Brain Preservation Foundation is attempting to devise a method of preserving the brain along with its associated thoughts, feelings, and memories. It involves turning the brain into plastic, cutting it into small slices, and reconstructing it in three-dimensionally inside a computer.
The “Fairy Story” of Heaven
What about the traditional afterlife? Hawking said during his speech that the idea was “a fairy tale for people afraid of the dark” and that “[t]here is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers”. However, in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience, cardiologist Pim van Lommel cites the case of Pam Reynolds, who described from above in minute detail objects and events in an operating room while she was clinically brain-dead under general anaesthesia. Additionally, philosopher David Chalmers has argued that consciousness is a fundamental property independent of physical properties.
Whether one believes in a silicon-based afterlife or a spiritual one, the potential of science to fundamentally transform our lives deserves our reflection.